Is the World Falling Apart or Settling Down?

Keynoting the launch this morning of the Fund for Peace’s 2011 Failed States Index (#fsilaunch on Twitter), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said — and I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t have a transcript of his remarks — that if economic growth and economic integration don’t spread quickly to the world’s poorer countries, we will soon have many more failed states in the world than we have now. Under these circumstances, the question would no longer be “Who’s at the top of the Failed States Index?” but “How deep in the rankings does the roster of failed states go?”

The notion that a wave of state failures is swelling on our horizon reminded me of Robert Kaplan’s famous and influential 1994 essay in The Atlantic, “The Coming Anarchy.” There, Kaplan argued that “disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels” were carrying us inexorably toward a disordered world characterized by “the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.

The night before I attended the Fund for Peace event, the following paragraph caught my eye at the tail end of an essay by Alan Taylor in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:

A broad range of economic figures suggest that emerging markets are catching up to developed markets. As the Great Recession fades, this trend is likely to continue. The emerging-market history of low growth and high volatility is fading, while developed markets are experiencing more instability and financial impairments. Emerging markets have decreased their debt-to-GDP ratios, even as developed markets, including the United States and some in Europe, are letting theirs rise. In a sign of convergence between emerging and developed markets, health and schooling levels in emerging-market countries are now comparable to those seen in developed markets around 1975, with the gap continuing to narrow. And average levels of political and economic freedom in emerging markets have also improved dramatically in the last two decades. Although emerging markets have not yet achieved parity with developed markets…they now appear more stable and better positioned to enjoy sustained growth than they did a generation ago.

So, is the world falling apart, or is it settling down? I’m cautiously confident that the optimists have this one right. To my mind, the trends Alan Taylor identifies are the start of the big development story of the 21st century. After a century in which the global political economy was primarily characterized by the yawning gap in wealth and power between the so-called First and Third Worlds, that gap is finally narrowing. Economic growth is accelerating in countries long mired in a “poverty trap,” and the economic and political benefits of that trend are extending to more and more of the world’s human population. Hundreds of millions of people still live in abject poverty, under authoritarian rule, or both, but the share of the global population living in deep poverty is notably lower than it was just a couple of decades ago (see the chart below, from the World Bank), and the economic takeoffs occurring in many long-poor countries suggest that trend is only broadening. (For some better informed thoughts on this topic, see Charles Kenny‘s new book, Getting Better, reviewed here in The New York Times.)

If the “developing” world is finally showing signs of economic and political convergence with the “developed” one, it’s hard for me to see how a wave of state failures is likely to follow. State failure is a syndrome that almost exclusively befalls poor countries with chronically weak central governments, the very conditions many so-called emerging markets are finally emerging from. The political and social changes associated with that emergence may be uneven and tumultuous, but that tumult should not be confused with the more severe problem of state collapse.

If things are generally looking up, why are people like Adm. Mullen (if I haven’t misunderstood his remarks) still so worried about the coming anarchy? In a bit of armchair psychology, I wonder if the admiral’s gloomy prognosis is partly a result of confusing uncertainty with risk. The encouraging development trends mentioned above are reordering politics at the international and national levels to a degree not seen in several generations, and no one knows when this turbulent period will end and what its results will be. People are inherently uncomfortable with uncertainty, and it seems like that discomfort often inflates our sense of the risk that worst-case scenarios will come to pass. In other words, our fear of dire outcomes seems to cause us to overestimate the probability that they will occur. In this particular case, I sure hope that’s right.

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  1. Marje

     /  June 30, 2011

    Just curious, which countries in poverty trap are making progress? How are they doing, the Somalias, Haitis, Sudans and Zimbabwes?
    I think failing states are NOT emerging markets nor are they developing countries. Not yet. And adm Mullen is a mil officer, predicting anarchy and possible responses to it is his lens for viewing the world.

    • I’m not talking about countries already mired in state failure taking off. I’m talking about long-poor countries, the group at greatest risk of state failure, now experiencing sustained periods of rapid growth — places like Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda, and Uganda. Also, I don’t mean to suggest that growth makes these countries immune to state failure, just that it should reduce the risk of its occurrence. As the number of countries in the high-risk pool shrinks, I would expect to see a decline in the incidence of state failure.

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